Ah, at last, a little time in the late afternoon to deliver the promised CineFest overview's second and final chapter. Apologies for the delays and distractions, folks.
CineFest is an annual retreat for diehard movie lovers, who congregate annually amid various ill end-of-winter weather (every year we drive through one mix or another of snow, sleet, or freezing rain at some leg of the journey) for a mid-March feast of never-to-be-seen elsewhere cinematic rarities from the silent and early sound era, domestic and foreign. Though the mix is typically shy of anything remotely horrific (my meat, natch) and always favors at least three or four vintage westerns, there have been some exceptions over the years. I'll forever savor seeing the US debut of the Eastman House restoration (flawed though it was) of the 1925 The Lost World on the big screen, along with past CineFest screenings of other genre and/or borderline-genre outings I feared I'd never get to see: The Student of Prague (the Conrad Veidt version -- in fact, there's been some stellar Veidt films at CineFest I'd have never seen otherwise), The Circus Queen Mystery, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Queen of Spades (years before its Anchor Bay DVD release), the occasional Lon Chaney rarity, etc.
What's wonderful about CineFest is seeing the films one has never heard of and would never have seen if it weren't for CineFest. I could go on and on about past glories, but suffice to note the gems of this March's harvest:
* The opening day's Warner Baxter vehicle Such Women Are Dangerous (Fox Film Corp., 1934) was my first fave of the festival, revolving around an affluent ladies man and pop romance novelist (Baxter, natch, in fine form) who becomes the obsessive focus of a midwest small-town fan and aspiring writer named Verne Little (Rochelle Hudson). Predating the writer-fixated psychopaths of Misery and Trance and Jessica Walter's unbalanced DJ stalker in Play Misty for Me, ingenue Little tries to ingratiate herself to Baxter, insinuating herself incrementally into his life. Trying to be a nice guy, Baxter's attempts to humor her only opens the door wider, ending in tragedy. Little ends up snuffing herself, clumsily but effectively framing Baxter for her apparent murder, culminating in the inevitable courtroom finale where none other than Irving Pichel (of Most Dangerous Game and Dracula's Daughter fame) griddles his ass on the stand and his savvy secretary (the lovely Rosemary Ames) labors to save his bacon. By and large, the Baxter films at CineFest have been great fun, and this was one of the better ones -- a lively confection with enough pathological behavior from Hudson to get me squirming and a compact script brimming with believable twists of the narrative knife (from a novel by Vera Caspery, author of the classic Laura).
* A war subgenre -- or, should I say, post-war subgenre -- that has become a staple of CineFest are post-WW1 "after the war" tearjerkers in which a young couple marry during the war, enjoy a single night to consummate their love before he is shipped back to the trenches, and she is subsequently told he is dead -- and, just after she finally falls for another, the embittered and very-much-alive (or just-barely-alive) vet returns. Heartbreak ensues. My personal favorite of the subgenre may always remain the silent Lillian Gish vehicle The White Sister (which Marj and I savored at CineFest last year), in which the 'man' the faux-war-widow falls for is none other than Jesus himself (Lillian becomes a nun, her beau returns minutes after she takes her vows -- too late!) and the melodramatic angst is given incredibly urgent geological manifestation via an outsized wall-mounted invention that tracks the rise of magma in a nearby volcano (like a barometer), conveniently erupting and sending flaming lava flows through the village at the very moment Lillian's Jesus-jilted vet hubby can stand the denial no longer. Talk about blueballs! Whew -- that classic made Guy Maddin's delirious faux-early-sound conceits seem positively rational by comparison!
All of which leads to this year's CineFest 'war widow finds out she's not a widow' WW1-set chickflick The Man from Yesterday (Paramount, 1932), which brought the archetypal heartbreak scenario to life thanks primarily to a deft script (punctuated with nicely observed details of 'fringe' characterization: the Parisian cab driver indulging the wartime marriage and honeymoon, etc.), atmospheric direction (by Berthold Viertel) and cinematography (by Karl Struss), and a stellar cast: Claudette Colbert at her finest, Clive Brook as her embittered British 'lunger' of a husband (a gas attack permanently impairs his breathing, keeping him at the cusp of death), Andy Devine as his loyal Brooklyn-born trenchwar friend, and Charles Boyer as the French military surgeon who takes the brave Colbert under his protection when he discovers she is pregnant with her (thought-to-be-dead) husband's child. Colbert & Boyer of course fall in love despite her reluctance to do so; she succumbs to his charms only upon accepting at last Brook's death -- at the very European resort harboring the recuperating Brook and Devine. I've no doubt the story was old-hat in 1932, but the cast and mise-en-scene lent it unexpected juice.
* There were a number of pleasant diversion amid the silent films that unspooled: the spry comedy Hold Your Breath (1924), in which comedienne star Dorothy Devore recreated the building-climbing comedy/suspense of the previous year's Harold Lloyd hit Safety Last; the likable Lewis (father of David O.) Selznick opus Is Life Worth Living? (1921), which answers its title "yes, if the scriptwriter is merciful enough to contrive an unlikely scheme to make one's fortune against all odds" inoffensively enough; etc. But the best of 'em all to my mind was the Leopold Jessner/Paul Leni-directed silent German feature Hintertreppe/Backstairs (1921), an excrutiatingly potent three-person drama that mounted a grueling portrait of unrequited love, dashed dreams and irrevocable loss amid a stylized but tactile urban squalor that anticipated the best work of Fassbinder and von Trier. Henny Porten and Fritz Kortner anchor the film as a housemaid and a postman -- they are the film, in fact. She labors endlessly over the interminable, repetitious house and kitchen chores of her unseen wealthy employers, though she lives in abject poverty herself. Her emotions hangs on regular if fleeting rendevous with her fiance, a worker (future director William Dieterle, making the most of little screentime), in what appears to be a chaste courtship fixed only in her mind as anything of substance; indeed, when he fails to show up for their usual doorway nighttime meeting, she fears the worst. Meanwhile, she unknowingly is the obsessive romantic focus of the dim-witted, deformed postman who sees her daily as she opens the door to accept the wealthy family's mail; this daily ritual is what the postman lives for, aching for their momentary contact to blossom into something more (echoing her own minimal contact with her nominal fiance, a relationship we see only as the briefest of exchanges). Thus, the stylized Paul Leni (future director of The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs) sets and co-direction -- the imagery dominated by the stark, narrow staircase which remains the only meeting place of the maiden and mailman until the fateful finale -- is matched by the expressionistic spareness of the Carl Mayer script (scribed by the man who wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Sunrise, etc.), and the suffocating claustrophobia of the constricted emotions and confined spaces close in on the characters and the viewer with terrible finality. This mega-bummer was the most powerful film of this year's lineup, and among the best silent films I've seen in quite some time.
* Equally stunning and Hintertreppe's polar opposite in all ways was the intoxicating adventure epic The Sea Hawk (1924). As Leonard Maltin notes on his blog (see link, below -- thanks to Mike Dobbs for steering me to Leonard's post!), The Sea Hawk was indeed one of the festival's highlights, adhering to the premise of the source novel (jettisoned in the more famous Errol Flynn adaptation) of "an Englishman [who] relinquishes Christianity for Islam because he can’t abide the hypocrisy he sees all around him." The 'Sea Hawk' was played by Milton Sills, starring as the English reformed-pirate-turned-gentleman who is so badly abused by his rival, his fiancee, his brother (who betrays him to none other than Wallace Beery, to be sold into slavery; Beery's character becomes the hero's sidekick via circumstances too delightfully complex to summarize here) and the subsequent twists of fate that he indeed embraces Allah and becomes Sakr-el-Bahr: the Hawk of the Sea! This was a rousing swashbuckler and grand adventure in the style of The Count of Monte Cristo, engaging in its melodrama, surprisingly expansive in scope, and the equal of any of the Douglas Fairbanks classics (though Sills brought far greater gravity to the lead role than the boyish Fairbanks could ever have lent it). Tom Weaver rightly stated at dinner that evening that Sills must remain the only action-star in history with the first name "Milton," but it must be said he was up to the challenge of bringing every extreme of his character to vivid life, from the lion-in-autumn retired pirate of the opening act to the (apparently) ruthless Sakr-el-Bahr, a performance worthy of any in its genre.
But enough for now -- I'll write about some of the other films later this week, if time allows. Typically, Marj sees more of the CineFest annual lineup than I do (my addiction for scouring the dealer's room demands some time away from the screenings), but she surprisingly walked out of a couple this year, including the Rudolph Valentino opus The Isle of Love. Leonard Maltin stuck with the film, though, and calls the film "...one of the oddest films shown this or any year..." and "appalling...unwatchable", so I guess Marj made the right call. I was too busy sorting through stills to care at that particular point in the weekend.
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